Lectures on Physics has been derived from Benjamin Crowell's Light and Matter series of free introductory textbooks on physics. See the editorial for more information....

Classification and Behavior of Forces

e / A scientific classification system.

One of the most basic and important tasks of physics is to classify the forces of nature. I have already referred informally to "types" of forces such as friction, magnetism, gravitational forces, and so on. Classification systems are creations of the human mind, so there is always some degree of arbitrariness in them. For one thing, the level of detail that is appropriate for a classification system depends on what you're trying to find out. Some linguists, the "lumpers," like to emphasize the similarities among languages, and a few extremists have even tried to find signs of similarities between words in languages as different as English and Chinese, lumping the world's languages into only a few large groups. Other linguists, the "splitters," might be more interested in studying the differences in pronunciation between English speakers in New York and Connecticut. The splitters call the lumpers sloppy, but the lumpers say that science isn't worthwhile unless it can find broad, simple patterns within the seemingly complex universe.

Scientific classification systems are also usually compromises between practicality and naturalness. An example is the question of how to classify flowering plants. Most people think that biological classification is about discovering new species, naming them, and classifying them in the class-order-family-genus-species system according to guidelines set long ago. In reality, the whole system is in a constant state of flux and controversy. One very practical way of classifying flowering plants is according to whether their petals are separate or joined into a tube or cone - the criterion is so clear that it can be applied to a plant seen from across the street. But here practicality conflicts with naturalness. For instance, the begonia has separate petals and the pumpkin has joined petals, but they are so similar in so many other ways that they are usually placed within the same order. Some taxonomists have come up with classification criteria that they claim correspond more naturally to the apparent relationships among plants, without having to make special exceptions, but these may be far less practical, requiring for instance the examination of pollen grains under an electron microscope.

In physics, there are two main systems of classification for forces. At this point in the course, you are going to learn one that is very practical and easy to use, and that splits the forces up into a relatively large number of types: seven very common ones that we'll discuss explicitly in this chapter, plus perhaps ten less important ones such as surface tension, which we will not bother with right now.

Professional physicists, however, are obsessed with finding simple patterns, so recognizing as many as fifteen or twenty types of forces strikes them as distasteful and overly complex. Since about the year 1900, physics has been on an aggressive program to discover ways in which these many seemingly different types of forces arise from a smaller number of fundamental ones. For instance, when you press your hands together, the force that keeps them from passing through each other may seem to have nothing to do with electricity, but at the atomic level, it actually does arise from electrical repulsion between atoms. By about 1950, all the forces of nature had been explained as arising from four fundamental types of forces at the atomic and nuclear level, and the lumping-together process didn't stop there. By the 1960's the length of the list had been reduced to three, and some theorists even believe that they may be able to reduce it to two or one. Although the unification of the forces of nature is one of the most beautiful and important achievements of physics, it makes much more sense to start this course with the more practical and easy system of classification. The unified system of four forces will be one of the highlights of the end of your introductory physics sequence.

f / A practical classification scheme for forces.

The practical classification scheme which concerns us now can be laid out in the form of the tree shown in figure f. The most specific types of forces are shown at the tips of the branches, and it is these types of forces that are referred to in the POFOSTITO mnemonic. For example, electrical and magnetic forces belong to the same general group, but Newton's third law would never relate an electrical force to a magnetic force.

The broadest distinction is that between contact and noncontact forces, which has been discussed in the previous chapter. Among the contact forces, we distinguish between those that involve solids only and those that have to do with fluids, a term used in physics to include both gases and liquids. The terms "repulsive," "attractive," and "oblique" refer to the directions of the forces.

  • Repulsive forces are those that tend to push the two participating objects away from each other. More specifically, a repulsive contact force acts perpendicular to the surfaces at which the two objects touch, and a repulsive noncontact force acts along the line between the two objects.

  • Attractive forces pull the two objects toward one another, i.e., they act along the same line as repulsive forces, but in the opposite direction.

  • Oblique forces are those that act at some other angle.

It should not be necessary to memorize this diagram by rote. It is better to reinforce your memory of this system by calling to mind your commonsense knowledge of certain ordinary phenomena. For instance, we know that the gravitational attraction between us and the planet earth will act even if our feet momentarily leave the ground, and that although magnets have mass and are affected by gravity, most objects that have mass are nonmagnetic.

This diagram is meant to be as simple as possible while including most of the forces we deal with in everyday life. If you were an insect, you would be much more interested in the force of surface tension, which allowed you to walk on water. I have not included the nuclear forces, which are responsible for holding the nuclei of atoms, because they are not evident in everyday life.

You should not be afraid to invent your own names for types of forces that do not fit into the diagram. For instance, the force that holds a piece of tape to the wall has been left off of the tree, and if you were analyzing a situation involving scotch tape, you would be absolutely right to refer to it by some commonsense name such as "sticky force."

On the other hand, if you are having trouble classifying a certain force, you should also consider whether it is a force at all. For instance, if someone asks you to classify the force that the earth has because of its rotation, you would have great difficulty creating a place for it on the diagram. That's because it's a type of motion, not a type of force!

Normal forces

A normal force, FN, is a force that keeps one solid object from passing through another. "Normal" is simply a fancy word for "perpendicular," meaning that the force is perpendicular to the surface of contact. Intuitively, it seems the normal force magically adjusts itself to provide whatever force is needed to keep the objects from occupying the same space. If your muscles press your hands together gently, there is a gentle normal force. Press harder, and the normal force gets stronger. How does the normal force know how strong to be? The answer is that the harder you jam your hands together, the more compressed your flesh becomes. Your flesh is acting like a spring: more force is required to compress it more. The same is true when you push on a wall. The wall flexes imperceptibly in proportion to your force on it. If you exerted enough force, would it be possible for two objects to pass through each other? No, typically the result is simply to strain the objects so much that one of them breaks.

Gravitational forces

As we'll discuss in more detail later in the course, a gravitational force exists between any two things that have mass. In everyday life, the gravitational force between two cars or two people is negligible, so the only noticeable gravitational forces are the ones between the earth and various human-scale objects. We refer to these planetearth- induced gravitational forces as weight forces, and as we have already seen, their magnitude is given by |FW| = mg.

→ Solved problem: Weight and mass page 177, problem 26

Static and kinetic friction

If you have pushed a refrigerator across a kitchen floor, you have felt a certain series of sensations. At first, you gradually increased your force on the refrigerator, but it didn't move. Finally, you supplied enough force to unstick the fridge, and there was a sudden jerk as the fridge started moving. Once the fridge is unstuck, you can reduce your force significantly and still keep it moving.

g / A model that correctly explains many properties of friction. The microscopic bumps and holes in two surfaces dig into each other, causing a frictional force.

While you were gradually increasing your force, the floor's frictional force on the fridge increased in response. The two forces on the fridge canceled, and the fridge didn't accelerate. How did the floor know how to respond with just the right amount of force? Figure g shows one possible model of friction that explains this behavior. (A scientific model is a description that we expect to be incomplete, approximate, or unrealistic in some ways, but that nevertheless succeeds in explaining a variety of phenomena.) Figure g/1 shows a microscopic view of the tiny bumps and holes in the surfaces of the floor and the refrigerator. The weight of the fridge presses the two surfaces together, and some of the bumps in one surface will settle as deeply as possible into some of the holes in the other surface. In g/2, your leftward force on the fridge has caused it to ride up a little higher on the bump in the floor labeled with a small arrow. Still more force is needed to get the fridge over the bump and allow it to start moving. Of course, this is occurring simultaneously at millions of places on the two surfaces.

h / Static friction: the tray doesn't slip on the waiter's fingers.

Once you had gotten the fridge moving at constant speed, you found that you needed to exert less force on it. Since zero total force is needed to make an object move with constant velocity, the floor's rightward frictional force on the fridge has apparently decreased somewhat, making it easier for you to cancel it out. Our model also gives a plausible explanation for this fact: as the surfaces slide past each other, they don't have time to settle down and mesh with one another, so there is less friction.

i / Kinetic friction: the car skids.

Even though this model is intuitively appealing and fairly successful, it should not be taken too seriously, and in some situations it is misleading. For instance, fancy racing bikes these days are made with smooth tires that have no tread - contrary to what we'd expect from our model, this does not cause any decrease in friction. Machinists know that two very smooth and clean metal surfaces may stick to each other firmly and be very difficult to slide apart. This cannot be explained in our model, but makes more sense in terms of a model in which friction is described as arising from chemical bonds between the atoms of the two surfaces at their points of contact: very flat surfaces allow more atoms to come in contact.

Since friction changes its behavior dramatically once the surfaces come unstuck, we define two separate types of frictional forces. Staticfriction is friction that occurs between surfaces that are not slipping over each other. Slipping surfaces experience kineticfriction. "Kinetic" means having to do with motion. The forces of static and kinetic friction, notated Fs and Fk, are always parallel to the surface of contact between the two objects.

Self-Check 1. When a baseball player slides in to a base, is the friction static, or kinetic?

2. A mattress stays on the roof of a slowly accelerating car. Is the friction static or kinetic?

3. Does static friction create heat? Kinetic friction?

Answer (1) It's kinetic friction, because her uniform is sliding over the dirt. (2) It's static friction, because even though the two surfaces are moving relative to the landscape, they're not slipping over each other. (3) Only kinetic friction creates heat, as when you rub your hands together. If you move your hands up and down together without sliding them across each other, no heat is produced by the static friction.

The maximum possible force of static friction depends on what kinds of surfaces they are, and also on how hard they are being pressed together. The approximate mathematical relationships can be expressed as follows:

Fs = -Fapplied , when |Fapplied| < s|FN| ,

where s is a unitless number, called the coefficient of static friction, which depends on what kinds of surfaces they are. The maximum force that static friction can supply, s|FN|, represents the boundary between static and kinetic friction. It depends on the normal force, which is numerically equal to whatever force is pressing the two surfaces together. In terms of our model, if the two surfaces are being pressed together more firmly, a greater sideways force will be required in order to make the irregularities in the surfaces ride up and over each other.

Note that just because we use an adjective such as "applied" to refer to a force, that doesn't mean that there is some special type of force called the "applied force." The applied force could be any type of force, or it could be the sum of more than one force trying to make an object move.

The force of kinetic friction on each of the two objects is in the direction that resists the slippage of the surfaces. Its magnitude is usually well approximated as

|Fk| = k|FN|

where k is the coefficient of kinetic friction. Kinetic friction is usually more or less independent of velocity.

j / We choose a coordinate system in which the applied force, i.e., the force trying to move the objects, is positive. The friction force is then negative, since it is in the opposite direction. As you increase the applied force, the force of static friction increases to match it and cancel it out, until the maximum force of static friction is surpassed. The surfaces then begin slipping past each other, and the friction force becomes smaller in absolute value.

Self-Check Can a frictionless surface exert a normal force? Can a frictional force exist without a normal force?
Answer Frictionless ice can certainly make a normal force, since otherwise a hockey puck would sink into the ice. Friction is not possible without a normal force, however: we can see this from the equation, or from common sense, e.g., while sliding down a rope you do not get any friction unless you grip the rope.

If you try to accelerate or decelerate your car too quickly, the forces between your wheels and the road become too great, and they begin slipping. This is not good, because kinetic friction is weaker than static friction, resulting in less control. Also, if this occurs while you are turning, the car's handling changes abruptly because the kinetic friction force is in a different direction than the static friction force had been: contrary to the car's direction of motion, rather than contrary to the forces applied to the tire.

Most people respond with disbelief when told of the experimental evidence that both static and kinetic friction are approximately independent of the amount of surface area in contact. Even after doing a hands-on exercise with spring scales to show that it is true, many students are unwilling to believe their own observations, and insist that bigger tires "give more traction." In fact, the main reason why you would not want to put small tires on a big heavy car is that the tires would burst!

Although many people expect that friction would be proportional to surface area, such a proportionality would make predictions contrary to many everyday observations. A dog's feet, for example, have very little surface area in contact with the ground compared to a human's feet, and yet we know that a dog can often win a tug-of-war with a person.

The reason why a smaller surface area does not lead to less friction is that the force between the two surfaces is more concentrated, causing their bumps and holes to dig into each other more deeply.

Self-Check Find the direction of each of the forces in figure k.

k / 1. The cliff's normal force on the climber's feet. 2. The track's static frictional force on the wheel of the accelerating dragster. 3. The ball's normal force on the bat.

Answer (1) Normal forces are always perpendicular to the surface of contact, which means right or left in this figure. Normal forces are repulsive, so the cliff's force on the feet is to the right, i.e., away from the cliff. (2) Frictional forces are always parallel to the surface of contact, which means right or left in this figure. Static frictional forces are in the direction that would tend to keep the surfaces from slipping over each other. If the wheel was going to slip, its surface would be moving to the left, so the static frictional force on the wheel must be in the direction that would prevent this, i.e., to the right. This makes sense, because it is the static frictional force that accelerates the dragster. (3) Normal forces are always perpendicular to the surface of contact. In this diagram, that means either up and to the left or down and to the right. Normal forces are repulsive, so the ball is pushing the bat away from itself. Therefore the ball's force is down and to the right on this diagram.

Fluid friction

Try to drive a nail into a waterfall and you will be confronted with the main difference between solid friction and fluid friction. Fluid friction is purely kinetic; there is no static fluid friction. The nail in the waterfall may tend to get dragged along by the water flowing past it, but it does not stick in the water. The same is true for gases such as air: recall that we are using the word "fluid" to include both gases and liquids.

Unlike solid kinetic friction, the force of fluid friction increases rapidly with velocity. In many cases, the force is approximately proportional to the square of the velocity,

Ffluid friction cρAv2 ,

where A is the cross-sectional area of the object, ρ is the density of the fluid, and c is a constant of proportionality that depends partly on the type of fluid and partly on how streamlined the object is.

Discussion Questions

A A student states that when he tries to push his refrigerator, the reason it won't move is because Newton's third law says there's an equal and opposite frictional force pushing back. After all, the static friction force is equal and opposite to the applied force. How would you convince him he is wrong?
B Kinetic friction is usually more or less independent of velocity. However, inexperienced drivers tend to produce a jerk at the last moment of deceleration when they stop at a stop light. What does this tell you about the kinetic friction between the brake shoes and the brake drums?
C Some of the following are correct descriptions of types of forces that could be added on as new branches of the classification tree. Others are not really types of forces, and still others are not force phenomena at all. In each case, decide what's going on, and if appropriate, figure out how you would incorporate them into the tree.

sticky forcemakes tape stick to things
opposite forcethe force that Newton's third law says relates to every force you make
flowing forcethe force that water carries with it as it flows out of a hose
surface tensionlets insects walk on water
horizontal forcea force that is horizontal
motor forcethe force that a motor makes on the thing it is turning
canceled forcea force that is being canceled out by some other force

Last Update: 2010-11-11